Balalaikas, Hockney, and the coming of Spring: ‘Grief is the Things With Feathers’ and ‘Lanny’ author Max Porter shares select snippets of the past month of his life
My wife and I have been busy making things. I’m a great believer in the power of craft, even if I am impatient and unskilled at most things. We’ve been painting tiles, embroidering, weaving and printing. Not for any commercial gain (nobody would want to buy what we are making, I don’t think) but to customise our environment, and keep our hands busy, and distract ourselves from the world a bit.
I always start my writing projects with drawings, so this month whenever I’ve been at home I’ve been covering a wall in my home with doodles and drawings and maps. It’s moving towards a book about personal intimacy, but needed to start with ley lines and branches and floorplans of churches. Mainly because those things are pleasing to draw, and help me think. They belong to the last book, but contain the roots of the next.
I’ve been hanging out with Mark Waters and Kate Gathercole, who I’d met at my favourite literary gathering, Medicine Unboxed, last year. Mark is a bass player, and Kate is a singer and multi-instrumentalist who builds her own instruments and combines acoustic and electronic sounds with traditional song, and recorded noise, and all sorts of goodness. Together they are called Alula Down, part of the weirdshire folk collective, and just the nicest people you’ll ever meet. I asked them if they’d consider joining me for the first events for my new novel, Lanny. It’s a book about English myth, sort of, and the sound they make seemed perfect as a drone accompaniment to the principle mythic element of the book, a character called Dead Papa Toothwort. Anyway, it works a treat, and we’ve had a lot of fun channelling the voices, and building a soundscape I could read with and against. We plan to widen it out, add more voices, add more instruments, make it more political.
Increasingly I think the literary world suffers from its reluctance to be more collaborative. It’s a counter-productive symptom of the silo-based way capitalism enslaves art, and I hope all of us can push back a bit, at whatever level, locally or nationally, personally or collectively. So, having a live element, an improvised element, and publically celebrating the fact that folk music and literature are branches of the same tree, this all seems like a good and fun way to make work. And also, frankly, book readings are often very dull, and if people have dipped in their pockets for a ticket or a book, we may as well put on a lovely show.
I’ve been on a lot of trains this month. The Wi-Fi never works. Apart from the fifteen-minute journey from Saltaire to Leeds on Northern. That was top notch Wi-Fi and I used it to tweet about how much I’d loved my trip to Salts Mill. That’s a special place with unrivalled Hockneys. I think of myself as only really interested in early Hockney, or black and white Hockney, but they’ve got the great grid of Spring watercolours and ooof, that’s good work. It really hit the only nationalistic sweet spot I have, which is landscape-related. His hedges, his copses, all painted from the edge of the road, a sandwich and a thermos of coffee view, the way most of us see it, because most of us don’t own land, and can’t really be faffed trespassing because we’ve got bad knees.
Salts Mill is a singular place where the visionary and the industrial meet, as well as offering a great pint of beer and a delicious ham salad, and then as if my quick trip couldn’t get any more perfect I stumbled across The Early Music Shop. I have been searching for the perfect present for my brother’s 40th. He makes dark and strange electronic music, but loves his medieval stuff and early folk and he is carpenter and had made himself some banjos. He’s difficult to buy for…
Imagine my delight, I bought the fucker a balalaika.
I’ve been reading The Uninhabitable Earth, which is unarguable, and terrifying. I’ve been reading Rachael Allen’s stupendous Kingdomland again and again. I’ve been reading Merwin, because Merwin’s language is the most alive thing in the world, even though the man just died. I’ve been listening to Hannah Peel and Will Burns’ gorgeous Chalk Hill Blue. I’ve been watching Last Kingdom because sometimes nothing but Danes drawing a square and whacking each other with big axes will do.
This country is such a strange place and in many, many ways, utterly fucking disgusting. There’s been a 593% increase in anti-Muslim hate crime since Christchurch. Because of Christchurch. That simply breaks my heart, all the more because it’s not surprising. It’s the way it is and has been, it is by design, and it’s getting worse. My tears, shed as I zoom about in my bubble meeting nice people who have read my novels, aren’t going to help. But at least we can push back against the politics, the papers, the stories being pumped into this green and polluted land, this mad, mad little git of a place, in every way available to us. The kids are on the street screaming for change, screaming for the adults to notice that there’s only one question now, holding banners in letters big enough for the grown-ups to read saying NO POLITICS ON A DEAD PLANET, and the adults are droning on about Article 50 and which crook’s fault it all is.
So, to that end, I’m hanging out with my sons and my wife as much as humanly possible. I am antisocial with friends and acquaintances, because I’d rather be at home. I don’t know whether it’s the politics of the present or me being tired and emotional, but I am so in love with my wife at the moment I can hardly handle it. I get home after an event and just collapse at the sight of her. She’d say its nicotine withdrawal and self-pity.
Family life is the best antidote to the dangerously self-absorbed machinations of a life in literary fiction. Our kids worry about everything, so we worry it all together, and keep busy. We are introducing a No Shouting penalty scheme, and I’ve promised the 7-year-old I’ll stop swearing in front of the 3-year-old. They’re the future. Spring is here.
Max Porter joins us at this year’s Port Eliot festival, where he will interview Will Burns and Hannah Peel about their new album ‘Chalk Hill Blue’. See our full stage lineup for the festival here.